Environment/Nature

Weeds 1, Monsanto 0, Farmers -1

This should come as no surprise, but The New York Times breathlessly informed us yesterday that US farmers are starting to have a hard time coping with Roundup-resistant weeds. That’s right. Straight from the heart of the country where people don’t want to see evolution taught, farmers are getting a real-life lesson in evolutionary theory. I bet no one, absolutely no one, saw this one coming.

Here’s how The Times presents it:

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

Well, this turns out to not be a new problem, exactly. In fact, there were Round-up resistant weeks ten years ago, found in a soybean field. And the problem has spread since then. And The Times, which has never expressed much reluctance for any new crackpot scheme that also manages to benefit corporate America, ominously intones:

The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds.

Roundup — originally made by Monsanto but now also sold by others under the generic name glyphosate — has been little short of a miracle chemical for farmers. It kills a broad spectrum of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact.

Note that reference to a miracle. The Times is sneaky that way. Note also, if you actually go and read the article, that the enterprising Times reporters, William Neuman and Andrew Pollock, somehow manage to make it through the entire article without a single mention of the fact that Roundup-resistant seeds have been hugely controversial. Nor do they mention Monsanto’s interesting legal strategies to force farmers to stay on the Monsanto dole. They do, however, pass along some interesting and possibly scary statistics, depending on your mood—roundup-resistant crops “account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States.”

They also blame it on the farmers, a pretty neat trick when you think about it:

But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.

Now, Roundup-resistant weeds like horseweed and giant ragweed are forcing farmers to go back to more expensive techniques that they had long ago abandoned.

So it wasn’t the concept that had anything wrong with it. It was those darn farmers who used the product too much. Well, what would you expect?

And, of course, the following should come as no surprise:

Monsanto, which once argued that resistance would not become a major problem, now cautions against exaggerating its impact. “It’s a serious issue, but it’s manageable,” said Rick Cole, who manages weed resistance issues in the United States for the company.

Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to exaggerate the impact of this, would we? Except even Neuman and Pollock do manage to notice that this might cause a problem for Monsanto:

Of course, Monsanto stands to lose a lot of business if farmers use less Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds.

“You’re having to add another product with the Roundup to kill your weeds,” said Steve Doster, a corn and soybean farmer in Barnum, Iowa. “So then why are we buying the Roundup Ready product?”

What doesn’t get questioned here, not one teeny bit, is whether this is actually the model we want to use for agriculture:

Monsanto and other agricultural biotech companies are also developing genetically engineered crops resistant to other herbicides.

Bayer is already selling cotton and soybeans resistant to glufosinate, another weedkiller. Monsanto’s newest corn is tolerant of both glyphosate and glufosinate, and the company is developing crops resistant to dicamba, an older pesticide. Syngenta is developing soybeans tolerant of its Callisto product. And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War.

Still, scientists and farmers say that glyphosate is a once-in-a-century discovery, and steps need to be taken to preserve its effectiveness.

Glyphosate “is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling disease,” Stephen B. Powles, an Australian weed expert, wrote in a commentary in January in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To even ask the question of what Wendell Berry would think of all this is to already know the answer. Especially the part about Dow’s developing corn and soybeans resistant to Agent Orange—those of us with long memories will savour that part. And it’s probably not even worth pointing out that penicillin doesn’t actually work that well any more, since bacteria initially targeted by penicillin have become more resistant. Nature does tend to work that way. And the fact that American agriculture has gotten itself into this mess is just another example of the vicious cycles that farmers, workers, ordinary citizens have gotten themselves stuck in in modern corporate America.

So it’s an outright pleasure to then wander over to good old Obama Foodorama, which has been covering, in more detail than I’ve actually seen elsewhere (certainly not the NY Times) the Obama administration’s efforts to bolster Rural America. Obama, of course, has not done things that many of us would have liked him to do, including myself. But still, good effort should be rewarded, and the fact that the Obama people, particularly Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, are promoting a National Summit on Rural America should be applauded. In fact, the Obama people have been doing something that the tea partiers and Sarah Palin and their ilk would appreciate if they were paying attention—they’re going out to the country and talking with people and listening to them. This is actually pretty subversive of the federal government, if you think about it. And it’s hard to see Palin doing this sort of thing, actually—listening, that is.

A number of commentators these days (like the well-meaning folks over at Front Porch Republic and similar sites) are trying to figure out ways to revive localism in our lives, and our communities, and our workplaces. Monsanto, and modern American agriculture’s dependence on it and its competitors, is a case in point of what Americans need to break free from. This is one of those “getting there from here” problems that seems to offer no simple solutions, probably because there aren’t any. But the effort needs to be made. Let’s hope that the Obama Rural Tour is generating some ideas in this area, because farmers, certainly, may need them in the future.

15 replies »

  1. I just watched “Food Inc.” The Monsanto Method of enforcing compliance with its patents (not to mention aggressively punishing those farmers who don’t purchase their seed) is… impressively terrifying.

  2. “Straight from the heart of the country where people don’t want to see evolution taught, farmers are getting a real-life lesson in evolutionary theory.” Ah, the beauty of doublespeak. Adaptation is different than evolution, or Darwinism, as taught in schools. These are still weeds, not armadillos, or frogs.

  3. Adaptations succeed (or not) through natural selection. This does not need to produce a new species in order to fall under the principles of evolutionary theory (whether classical Darwinism, or “the modern synthesis,” or any of the more current versions). Not all evolutionary changes are the result of adaptations, to be sure–genetic drift is maybe the best example. But all adaptations can be explained more elegantly thourgh natural selection than through any other mechanism or theory. Evolution through natural selection without producing new species happens all the time–pests evolving resistance to pesticides, or bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics, are two of the best examples.

    • Jeff has a point. There’s no reason that posts about things like broad agriculture practice and the policies governing them (or not governing them, as the case may be) need to get political.

  4. My point is that adaptation, natural selection, and the like are NOT what us hicks try to point out the errors of, it’s the idea that one species changes into another species. “All life came from a common primordial soup” kind of stuff. Darwin’s finches, no problem. Not only were they still birds, they were still finches. This is why I called it doublespeak. Evolution has more than one meaning. I may be wrong in my beliefs, but at least be accurate in what you are telling me I’m wrong about.

    That said, I agree with most of the post. I’m a fan of Wendell Berry, sustainable agriculture, and not poisoning the ground or my food.

  5. Retro Hound–sorry, it wasn’t clear to me from your first comment what it was you were objecting to. Well, we agree to disagree then. At least you admit that they’re your beliefs. I don’t argue with belief systems, however. And I’ll continue to use “evolution” in its factual sense, which includes both the adaptations we see constantly in nature, and the evolution of new species from old. Yes, “evolution” does have multiple meanings, and I suppose people will always choose the one they’re most comfortable with. That doesn’t alter the science, though.

  6. Just to be clear – because biology was a long time ago for me – Retro Hound believes in phyletic evolution but not speciation? Is this a general principle of the theory of intelligent design?

  7. Politics starts at the breakfast table.

    I have no problem with RoundUp. I grow pretty close to organic, but i’m not against using a little RoundUp when a need for it arises. It’s like anything else in the growers arsenal, a tool with a use when it is used properly, and like most tools of gardening, the benefits become negative when a tool is overused. Glyphosate does degrade rapidly. Spraying it to commit floracide is not, however, the same thing as spraying it on a food crop that won’t die from it.

    (I won’t tangent into GMOs here, but i don’t think that they’re the best solution to the problems facing agriculture for anyone except the corporations that market them/process them/and sell them.)

    Better living through chemistry is one thing. Relying on chemistry to live is another.

    But at the end of all this, RoundUp resistant weeds are to be expected and should be recognized as the symptom that they are rather than the disease to be treated. Using the industrial model in agriculture does not work. It just doesn’t, nor will it with some fancy laboratory tricks.

    This is a political discussion because it has to be, because the industrial model has been imposed on agriculture by and through politics for the benefit of a few (and it sure as shit ain’t the farmers or the consumers…unless “cheaper” is the only concern for consumers). And while the cure for the disease is not specifically political it is – in both affect and effect – political.

    Because politics starts with what’s on the breakfast table.

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